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Conservatives Talk About Conserving Judaism

JTS head lays out more ecumenical future

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The Jewish Theological Seminary.(Wikipedia)

In March, Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary—which is the intellectual heart of Conservative Judaism—gave a blunt interview to Manfred Gerstenfeld of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in which he admitted that his movement suffers from what marketers might describe as a crisis of brand identity. “When I speak throughout the United States to Conservative Jews, many of them do not know what the movement’s message is,” he said. “Even some rabbis complain that they are not able to convey its essence to their congregants. Some seem not to know it themselves.”

This morning, during commencement at JTS’s Upper Manhattan campus, I witnessed Eisen confirm that he is on a mission to reverse the prevailing view that the Conservative movement is on the wane. “This moment offers not only unprecedented challenge but unprecedented opportunity,” he said in his address. He pledged to position his school not just as a hub for people who identify as Conservatives, but for “the religious center.”

Who’s that, we wonder? Well, Eisen wasn’t quite clear about his definitions, but it apparently includes anyone in New York who’s interested in Judaism: Full-time students and part-time students “eager for Jewish learning and Jewish wisdom” will learn together at newly developed continuing education classes. And he was clear that JTS’s umbrella will now extend not just to Jews but to people of other faiths, particularly Christians and Muslims, whose clerics are going to be welcomed not just into public policy debates at JTS but into training in things like providing pastoral care.

These are general principles; what about specifics? Last week, Eisen outlined six core principles that will guide the school’s mission going forward. He elaborated, a bit, this morning on what that will mean: more interdisciplinary classes, more practical training for future clergy, and more continuing education, especially for professional staff at Jewish organizations. It will also mean more targeted focus on shaping how day schools and summer camps teach Jewish principles, and—you knew it was coming—“the revitalization of synagogue worship.” For more, I guess we’ll have to wait for the prospectus.

An interesting thing to note, especially in light of Peter Beinart’s powerful new essay about the future of American Zionism: Eisen was clear that he was speaking to American Jews, as Americans. Israel came up twice, once in a mention of the need for “creative thinking” about the Israel-Diaspora relationship (especially, we imagine, in light of the new conversion bill making its way through Israel’s Knesset), and once in explicit reference to the “inescapable tension between our focus on North American Jewry and significant involvement in the State and society of Israel.”

But to the new graduates, American Jews or otherwise, he said this: “You will no longer be enacting the hyphen in your identity by walking up and down Broadway” and exhorted them to go out into the wider world and do good.

Full speech after the jump. (more…)

Beinart Speaks to Tablet

Defends NYRB piece, which was originally for NYT Mag

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Peter Beinart.(Wikipedia)

As you know, Peter Beinart has penned a blockbuster essay in the New York Review of Books condemning the Israeli leadership for their illiberal treatment of the Palestinian question, and the American Jewish leadership for making Zionism unattractive by insisting on near-unquestioning support. I talked to Beinart (whose new book, The Icarus Syndrome, comes out June 1) today about why he wrote the article, why he published it where he did—it was originally supposed to run in the New York Times Magazine, but “there was a stylistic disagreement, not an ideological one”—and what he expects in response.

What prompted the essay? Why now, when you previously have not written much about Israel?
Having kids definitely played a role. I think it made me think about not just my Zionist identity, but what kind of Zionism was available to them. And the more I thought about that, the more I began to worry. I also think that we all operate at intellectual levels and emotional levels, and for me I just decided … There was this story in the New York Times about the Gaza War, about the house in Gaza where they found the children whose parents were dead. What you may find, if you do have kids one day, you are affected at an emotional level more strongly by certain things, in a way you may not be entirely prepared for. I think that’s a good thing, it’s primordial. I know people develop all kinds of shrewd and sophisticated and clever ways of explaining anything that happens, but when I read the story I just thought I was not in the mood to try in some clever way to explain it away. And the fact that I felt I was supposed to just sickened me a little bit.

That’s not to say there are never gonna be civilian casualties in war. But knowing the people who are running Israel now. … The amazing thing about Netanyahu’s book, which is a pretty long book, is there is not a single word of human empathy for the suffering of the Palestinians or Arabs. It was for me such a chilling book in its willingness to essentially. … there was something so inhuman about it, I felt. I just felt like that wasn’t something that I wanted to apologize for. (more…)

Today on Tablet

Poor Shavuot, the Ortho-politico, and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Staff Writer Marissa Brostoff examines why Shavuot—which starts tomorrow!—never really became a thing in America the way Passover and the other usual suspects did. Senior Writer Allison Hoffman profiles Nachama Soloveichik, an Orthodox 29-year-old descendant of a prominent rabbinic family who is now the press secretary to conservative Catholic Pennsylvania Senate candidate Pat Toomey. Parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall tries to figure out when her kids’ secular identity should take precedence, and when their religious one should. The Scroll will try not to make the whole week about the Beinart essay. Honest.

In U-Turn, Beinart Slams Israel, AIPAC

Warns Zionism is increasingly for the Orthodox

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This is what we’ll be talking about all week. Prominent liberal journalist Peter Beinart has predicted that Zionism among young American Jews is increasingly the exclusive reserve of the insensitive, illiberal Orthodox. Moreover, he blames this trend on AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the rest of the establishment. These organizations, by insisting on all-but-unquestioned support for Israel and its governments’ policies, have served, he argues, as “intellectual bodyguards for Israeli leaders who threaten the very liberal values they profess to admire.”

Here is the essay’s crux: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

Beinart is one-time editor of the staunchly pro-Israel New Republic. He prominently supported the Iraq invasion and specifically chastised fellow Democrats who didn’t. He has since repudiated that support, but even so, it is not a little surprising to see a one-time genuine hawk calling Israeli “new historian” Tom Segev “fearless.” (Under his leadership TNR endorsed Joe Lieberman in the 2004 Democratic primaries. Joe Lieberman!)

And even that is not as jarring as Beinart’s choice of venue. The New York Review of Books is the premier outlet for essays that are critical of Zionism; it famously published Tony Judt’s repudiation of Zionism in 2003. Tellingly, this is Beinart’s first contribution to the journal. Among other things, Beinart’s decision is designed to reassure you that, no, you’re not misreading it, and, yes, his piece really does represent a genuine shift for him. It also means Beinart chose to trade a certain amount of credibility with those who disagree with his conclusions in exchange for solidarity with those who do. Not to be overly cynical, but Beinart’s new book is out in two weeks.

Beinart’s essay may not garner quite the controversy that Judt’s did, but older American Jewish liberals won’t enjoy being told that their strong support for Israel is illiberal. They will make some immediate counterpunches, and will also take issue with Beinart’s handling of the relevant research, which may not suggest a permanent generation gap on the question of Israel (more on this in a bit).

The left will applaud Beinart, although he remains a Zionist—there are no better prizes for them than once-hawkish Jewish apostates. Meanwhile, J Street may be a little afraid to embrace him, even though his critical, liberal Zionism seems like a good match. (Beinart conspicuously does not mention the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.)

The Orthodox? Well, they won’t be too happy, and few will blame them. (Beinart attends an Orthodox synagogue. Awkward!)

Quick prediction: The sentence that will attract the most ire is, “Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well.” It will be very easy for critics to mention Walt and Mearsheimer as an inspiration.

After the jump: A couple key paragraphs and the anticipated counter-arguments. I’ll round-up the responses in the afternoon, assuming any writers or bloggers decide to respond to Beinart’s essay. (That was a joke.) (more…)

Daybreak: Iran Swap May Forestall Sanctions

Plus Chomsky turned back, Rahm ‘screwed up,’ and more in the news

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Noam Chomsky.(Chomsky.info)

• Iran agreed to send most of its enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for differently graded uranium from international regulators. [LAT]

• Palestinian boycotts of Jewish West Bank businesses are beginning to have real bite. [WP]

• Israeli officials denied left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky entry to Israel, though they now look to be reconsidering. (“Real democracies aren’t afraid of ridiculous men like Noam Chomsky,” says Jeffrey Goldberg. Ouch!) [JPost]

• Obama chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel told a multisectarian group of rabbis the administration “screwed up the messaging” and wasn’t sufficiently clear about its staunch support for Israel. [JPost/Vos Iz Neias?]

• Pat Buchanan engaged in a bit of Jew-counting on the topic of Supreme Court nominations. (In fairness, so did the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg.) [JTA]

• Someone wrote an article that you’ll be discussing all week. Much, much more at 10. [NYRB]

Sundown: Rabbis Go To Emanuel’s Temple

Plus why Obama should’ve picked a Protestant, and more

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Rahm Emanuel.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

• So 15 rabbis go to the White House … no, really, 15 rabbis had a meeting with chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel and other top advisers about Israel. [JTA]

• Thirty prominent American Jews signed a petition calling for a two-state solution. Supporters include Judge Abner Mikvah; the Forward’s publisher; Rabbi David Saperstein; and Theodore Bikel. [For The Sake of Zion]

• Former editor of the Forward argues Obama should have chosen a Protestant Supreme Court nominee. [Forward]

• J Street supports the extra U.S. aid for the Israeli missile shield. [J Street]

• An interview with Tablet Magazine contributor Judith Shulevitz on her new book about the Sabbath. [Jeffrey Goldberg]

Keith Richards introduces Phish on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon; they cover the Stones’s “Loving Cup”. Awesome.

The Love Lives of the Early Birds

This Week on ‘Sunset Daze’

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Sunset Daze(NYT)

When I last left the Sunset Daze girls, they were ready to conquer the world. But in this week’s episode, hiccups such as chiropractic Debbie downers and the cock block that is a comb-over derail their dreams. A dream of being Ms. Senior Arizona, a love life, a road to recovery from drugs, and the factors of old age came in their way of the residents of Surprise, Arizona.

The focus of the episode was a new character, Eileen. “I am having the time of my life,” she tells us. “I didn’t go into retirement to sit in a rocking chair.” Her latest mission is to win Ms. Senior Arizona. She considers getting lip implants to better her chances: “There are young women doing it and certainly we need it more than they do.” However, the recovery period from surgery would be too long for her to qualify for the pageant, so she nixes the idea. Next up: Finding the perfect ball gown. “Thank God there is no bathing suit competition in this pageant,” she remarks. Final challenge: Coming up with a dance routine. Eileen takes a dance class but her bad back flares up. The next day, she and her husband, Gary, visit the chiropractor. His final diagnosis is fodder for next week’s episode.

Meanwhile, Jack has decided to break up with the elusive Kathleen. Although he is very enamored of her, he knows she is not invested in their relationship. He ends their courtship and insightfully tells the viewer, “Time wounds all heels or time heals all wounds.” He decides that the time has come to start dating again. (more…)

Will Israel’s ‘Rich Uncle’ Buy ‘Newsweek’?

Haim Saban, America’s pro-Israel billionaire

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Haim Saban.(Forbes)

That Haim Saban is one of the main candidates to buy Newsweek should not be surprising to those who read Connie Bruck’s fantastic profile of the Israeli-American media tycoon in last week’s New Yorker: She reports that Saban tried to buy Newsweek or Time a couple years ago. (Tablet Magazine’s Allison Hoffman profiled Saban’s wife, Cheryl, last year.)

But now that The Washington Post Company has put the venerable magazine on the auction block, it is closer to Saban’s grasp. And if Saban owned one of America’s two main newsweeklies, that would be significant political news.

For the great reveal of Bruck’s piece is that despite all the canny business deals that have turned Saban into a self-made multi-billionaire (credit, among other things, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), “He is most proud of his role as political power broker.” And his political power-brokering has a focus: “I’m a one-issue guy,” he says, “and my issue is Israel.”

Or, as an Israeli television interviewer once told him, “You really are our rich uncle in America, and we can rely on you.”

Though a staunch Democrat (and massive Democratic contributor), he more specifically is a diehard backer (and close personal friend) of the Clintons. As a corollary, he has been unshy about expressing his displeasure with the Obama administration, particularly vis-à-vis its comparatively tough line on Israel. Even earlier this week, he said on Israeli television, “They are leftists, really left leftists, so far to the left there’s not much space left between them and the wall.”

You really should read the whole New Yorker profile. But, after the jump, some choice bits that help capture this important (and, maybe, soon-to-be even more important) man’s relationships with his two countries: (more…)

JTS Is on a Mission

Conservative seminary announces new initiatives, funding

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The Jewish Theological Seminary.(Wikipedia)

The Jewish Theological Seminary, which is the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism in America, announced that it has received significant new funding toward the implementation of six new principles:

• Scholarship in Service to Judaism and the Jewish Community

• Excellence in Teaching and Learning

• Synergy

• Partnerships

• Reaching New Types of Students

• Engaging and Strengthening Conservative Judaism and the Religious Center

Which were all things it presumably was doing before (hopefully, anyway).

So why is this mission statement different from all other mission statements? Well, promises Chancellor Arnold Eisen, “There will be more news to share as we move into the fall semester—exhilarating news that will vibrate through the halls of 3080 Broadway and well beyond our walls.”

Allison Hoffman is planning to schlep up to Morningside Heights on Monday for commencement; she’ll have a report then. Should be some interesting news to break. Stay tuned!

JTS Drafts New Mission Statement [The Fundermentalist]

Green Can Still Look Cool

And new Israeli solar panels prove it

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Z-10 Concentrated Solar-Power System by Ezri Tarazi and Ori Levin, Tarazi Studio.(ZenithSolar)

The trends in visual design (not to be confused with fashion design or interior design) often follow industry and commerce. So it seems surprising at first that the Cooper-Hewitt Design Triennial, which opens this Friday in New York, has set its beams on environmentalism and sustainability. Even though every business will claim various shades of ‘green’ these days, it seems that the mode has shifted against Al Gore and inconvenient truths to haplessly Twittering our economic collapse, forgoing the luxury of the upsell eco-container for cost-efficient styrofoam.

The Design Triennial, however, stakes a claim in sustainability, and this is reflected quite literally in the work of Professor Ezri Tarazi and Ori Levin, who together as Tarazi Studios are hoping to build a better solar panel. The Z-20 Concentrated Solar Power System, created by ZenithSolar, features prominently in the exhibition, with its expansive, stunning mirrored surface standing out like sublime disco-ball paneling. This system has been developed in Israel; prototypes are currently in use on Kibbutz Yavne. Part of the Z-20′s success comes from using relatively inexpensive materials, such as replacing silicone paneling with simple mirrors. These dishes also make a stunning visual impression: After all, we designers don’t want to ditch fashion completely.

Opening Up to the Disabled

How the Orthodox community can do more

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is no stranger to pushing boundaries: Recently, and controversially, he gave Sara Hurwitz the term “rabba,” making her the highest-profile female cleric in the Orthodox community. But at a lecture series held last week at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the rabbinical school Rabbi Weiss founded in 1999, a different sort of inclusion was up for discussion.

The lectures—which were sponsored by friends of mine, Ruvan and Shelley Cohen—focused on the Orthodox community’s failure to embrace children with developmental and learning disabilities. The Cohens endowed the series in memory of their son, Nathaniel. Nathaniel died three years ago, at age 21, of complications from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which had left him wheelchair-bound at an early age.

“We in the Jewish community are very good at acknowledging the importance of inclusiveness on a theoretical level, but fall woefully short on inclusiveness in practice,” said Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of YCT. “Ten percent of our community is being regularly ignored and pushed away.”

At one session, students heard from a panel of parents and siblings of disabled children, including the New York City-based mother of a two-year-old born with Down syndrome. She recounted how difficult it was to place her child in a Jewish school. “In New York,” she explained, “it’s hard enough to get your typical two-year-old into a school, much less one with Down syndrome.” She still has been unable to find a Jewish day school willing to accept her child, even after offering to pay for a “shadow teacher” to accompany her daughter throughout the school day. “Isn’t it the community’s responsibility,” she asked, “to provide my child with access to a Jewish education?”

A rabbi who is also the mother of a severely autistic child offered further insight. “Unwittingly,” she said, “my synagogue excommunicates children with disabilities.” Both parents urged congregations to sponsor “Disability Shabbats,” to focus attention on the problems facing special needs children and their families, and to bring in speakers and circulate articles that will raise awareness of the need for inclusion.

Rabbi Saul Berman, a leading Orthodox thinker and teacher, delivered a paper addressing how Jewish tradition views inclusiveness. He stressed the need to be aware of the emotional lives of the disabled, and their vulnerability. “You must be sensitized,” he said, “to their relation to organizations like synagogues and schools; the role of friendship; the sense of disillusionment; and, in general, their level of spiritual vulnerability.” I couldn’t help but think of the old adage that history judges civilizations by their treatment of their most vulnerable members—a sobering thought, given the challenges these activists still face.

Today on Tablet

Big ball of string, a very dairy Shavuot, and more

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Today in Tablet Magazine, Joshua J. Friedman profiles Ben Schachter, whose art is mainly inspried by eruv, the string that marks the permissible walking boundaries on Shabbat. Shavuot is coming up, and Shavuot means dairy. Liel Leibovitz explains the milk connection, while Katie Robbins comes up with the cheese in her quest for the perfect blintz (recipe included!). This week’s haftorah has all to do with numbers, and Liel Leibovitz responds by recounting his life—pun intended—in number form. The Scroll always felt that Numbers was the dark horse book of the Torah.

Sandra Bernhard Discusses Shavuot

Getting ready for Dawn 2010

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Sandra Bernhard, the comedian and author, will be the featured guest at Dawn 2010, the Tablet-sponsored late-night cultural arts festival going down in honor of Shavuot tomorrow evening in San Francisco.

Bernhard took the time to talk Shavuot with Senior Editor Sara Ivry about her engagement with Shavuot. She’s a longtime fan!

Here she reminisces on her favorite Shavuot ever: In Tel Aviv.

And here she explains how Shavuot is somewhat misunderstood in the United States.

Daybreak: Obama OKs Extra $205M in Aid

Plus Cass in bright lights, and more in the news

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Cass Sunstein, Samantha Power, and their boss.(NYT)

• President Obama allocated an additional $205 million in military aid for the completion of Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system. [JTA]

• Obama and President Medevedev kibitzed over Iran and the Mideast during an hour-and-a-half phone call. [JPost]

• The U.N. Human Rights Council welcomed 14 new members. Among them: Libya, Qatar, Uganda, Thailand, Angola, and Malaysia. Oh, and Poland! [VOA]

• After going an entire issue without a major feature shedding light on a new corner of the Obama administration, the Times Magazine profiles lawyer, author, and top federal regulator Cass Sunstein. [NYT]

• An historic Shanghai synagogue, built by the first wave of immigrants from Baghdad in the 1920s, was given permission to hold limited services in connection with the upcoming World Expo. [eJP]

Law & Order looks to be on its way out. Somehow, this feels like Jewish news. [NYT]

Sundown: J Street Takes on Solow

Plus a newly uncovered rejection letter, and more in the news

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• J Street’s head accuses super-powerful American Jewish leader Alan Solow of distorting Yitzhak Rabin’s views on Jerusalem, and inquires whether the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations favors a two-state solution. [HuffPo]

• Toward a definition of JCall, which is (somewhat misleadingly) fashioned as the European J Street. [Foreign Policy]

• A former Israeli diplomat and consul general makes the case for a U.S.-imposed peace plan instead of proximity talks. [Politico]

• In Britain, Leeds University’s student paper was pulled from racks after publishing an interview in which a Palestinian journalist said of news outlets, “They are certainly pro-Israeli. I think you have to ask yourself who controls the media.” [Leeds Student]

• Model Naomi Campbell is having secret meetings (except apparently not-so-secret) with Madonna’s Kaballah mentor. [Page Six]

• “Unfortunately, we receive so many Holocaust teenage diaries composed in European attics that it is impossible to accept each one.” [McSweeney’s]

Mazel tov to Tablet Magazine columnist Josh Lambert, newly the father of Asher:

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